In Praise of Emma Restall Orr – first posted 30.12.17

In 2016 I went hunting for a decent book on Animism, and I turned up 3 on my search of Amazon’s Kindle selection. These days, because my acquired disability means my grip is poor and holding hardcopy books has turned a joy into a chore, I rely on the Kindle app on my iPad now.

I bought 2. One remains partially read. The other was Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World. I was unprepared for the journey that book would take me on. I was expecting the standard stuff, based on her background. Emma was famously a Druid. Instead, what I got was a beautifully written exploration of the Western Philosophical tradition.

My exposure to Western philosophy is fragmented. I read Russell, Kant and Kierkegaard when I was 17 as well as a potted history, then some Plato and that was it for ages. I was too busy with Buddhism and a mess of other sources of inspiration. In more recent times (the past 20 years) I have listened to philosophy programs (ABC radio) and podcasts. I am up to episode 291 of Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy podcast. Not a disciplined approach by any measure, but it gave me the confidence to tackle Emma’s book.

It was not intimidating at all. In fact, far from it. It turned out that Emma had a natural feel for Western philosophy and wrote on it with a free and fluid style. There is no getting away from the fact that it is a book that demands of the reader a certain level of work.

What do you get as a reward for the effort? You get a sound sense as to how the essential ideas of animism are alive and well and living in the hearts and minds of the celebrated thinkers of our culture. You can be an animist and a philosopher, and not be out of place in our intellectual tradition.

In fact I’d go so far as to say that if you have any desire to engage in thinking about animism from a position of intellectual discipline then The Wakeful World is something you must pass through. You cannot go around it.

I moved on to another of Emma’s books, Living with Honour. Okay, so you have your chosen philosophy, how does that play out in the world? We all know that living in our culture generates a constant stream of moral problems for us. Our values are violated on our behalf in so many ways. Some many ‘goods’ come to us with dirty strings attached, and very little gets to us without causing harm on the way. Even when we lay out our values and declare them, they are ignored for the superior benefits of lower cost or greater convenience, and we crumble. We live in a muddled and messed up ecosystem of aspirations and determinations, dominated by the crassest of them.

But we must go on. We must endure and we must hold fast to what values we can. Living with Honour does not preach. It challenges and confronts – and if you care, you will subject yourself to that.

I was ready for Kissing the Hag. I should declare that my present conception of deity is Goddess – something I see as a fundamental challenge to a male raised in a culture dominated by masculinity. You can’t ‘get’ Goddess from a male perspective without altering so much of your thought and existential reflexes. Emma is not a ‘Goddess’ person in the same way. Her conception of deity is different.

From a male perspective I found Kissing the Hag a riveting read. It took me into depths of feminine consciousness that had been previously impenetrable to me. Maybe afterwards I had a more appreciate understanding of the feminine, but maybe more important to me was that I came to better understand why I did not/could not understand women. That insight was immensely liberating.

I have had an email interchange with Emma over almost a year now. She is not a professional author whose job it is to produce books. What she writes are acts of service. This is perhaps no more evident in her writing style, which is lyrical and beautiful. It is writing from the heart. Even so, it does not diminish the high intellectual standard she also brings.

It is an exceptional thing these days to find writing that has both heart and head potency of this calibre. There are, for me, very few writers of this standard who dare permit their personal authenticity come through their writing. This is maybe because not too many such writers are around – combining personal authenticity with what is a prodigious capacity for insight and understanding.

No writer is all things to all readers. The best we can hope for, as readers seeking knowledge and insight, is to come across a writer who deeply nourishes us by their writing, who asks not that their thought be believed, but considered. Authors of that calibre are always going to demand a lot of the reader.

I am forever amused that authors of tremendous potency pass me by. It is as if the time for reading them has not yet come to me. Then one day that time comes, and I am excited and grateful. I am sure this happens to everyone; it is just that I sometimes feel I am responsible for not being aware of them. Irrational really.

What Emma writes is nourishment to head and heart. It adds an essential missing dimension to how we understand animism – as something implicit in the canon of Western philosophy. We would then understand that such a something would be ignored or diminished by the religious and the atheistic thinkers. Who wants to upset the dogmatic applecart trundling toward an anticipated destiny that fulfills the expectations of its narrow devotees? Even at the highest levels of apparent cultural appreciation there is repression and misdirection.

Animism has been asserted to be the mentality of the primitive. It is, in fact, the mentality of a human whose consciousness is not clouded by the fog of culture and its norms and dogmas. Philosophy is the love of wisdom – the desire for a mentality not fogged by norms and dogmas. Let us translate our culturally aggressive notion of the ‘primitive’ into ‘pristine’ (as yet free of foggery).

Emma demonstrates that (some) philosophers of our tradition applied deep reason to confirm the essential beliefs of our ancestors were genuine insights and not naïve thinking. Animism is a rightful heritage for us. It does not have to be rethought, but reclaimed and rearticulated.

You can do this with an eager desire for sentiment that drives a shallow, but essential, shift in cultural values. Or you can be part of the deep change that embeds reclaimed and rearticulated thought in our intellectual culture.

Start off with The Wakeful World. Take your time and do the work it demands of you. But let me be clear here. It is not a dauntingly difficult book. I am simply aware that there are so many undemanding books that make reading ‘fun’ it can be challenging to encounter a book that expects you to think, rather than be impressed and agree. Learning and thinking well take effort. Please don’t imagine they does not.

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